To wear or not to wear – that is the question!

The conversation on academic fashion started with a post where I wondered what to wear while presenting a keynote lecture. People sent me a lot of links and photos, which inspired me to start a new side project: a Pinterest Board on academic fashion. Recently, PhD student of fashion blogs, Rose Findlay wrote a follow up to post with extra tips on dressing.

Over the weeks between the first and second post, two other people took the time to write posts reflecting on their own academic dressing practices. I thought I would publish these pieces together as I think both of them highlight how complex this issue of ‘dressing the part’ is…

The first reflection is from Kate Mansfield who describes herself as: “a knitter, maker of things, and yoga practitioner who also happens to be a PhD student researching chronic widespread pain in general practice at Keele University. Kate writes:

What shall I wear today? A daily debate for many of us. Sometimes it’s a practical issue, ‘will I be wading through mud today?’, ‘yes – wear wellies’, ‘no – choose other shoes’.

Sometimes, the question is laden with a whole bundle of other ‘stuff’. The other ‘stuff’ is a nasty tangle of how the outfit makes me feel about myself and what it makes other people feel about me. Or, to tangle further, what I think it makes others think about me and then how that makes me feel about myself… eep. Let’s not even stray into what making your own clothes does for the what-to-wear-today debate. I knit, I sew, I can often look somewhat ‘handmade’. This varies in its success.

I few months ago, when I saw the PhD comics academic dress code. I paused, looked down and inwardly groaned to note I was, most definitely, clad in my worksuit. Damn it, I hadn’t even bothered to put a bra on. It’s ok, I mainly work from home. The cats don’t care how I look. But, do I? Does it make a difference to me? Short answer. Yes. Longer answer, well it’s a touch more complicated.

On those rare days when the words are there, when I wake in the morning with a chapter almost fully formed in my head, those days where it feels like a race to get to the keyboard to get the words out of brain and on to page. On those wonderful, wished for, blissful days, it really doesn’t matter what I wear. It kinda feels like who I am drops away and all that matters is the work.

Unfortunately those days don’t happen often. They’re usually inspired by a deadline and really, quite honestly, I rather have a whole bundle of normal days. Normal days where I dress in clothes that make me smile, rather than crazed days, where I don’t wash, pull on the first clothes that come out of the dirty washing basket and lose myself in the work. I’d rather be me, be a bit less productive, get in the shower and wear something nice.

At the other end there are the days where it’s tough. Where even sitting down at my desk feels impossible. The days when it feels like the PhD is winning. Those are the days I find myself in a fancy outfit, wearing makeup and a pair of red patent leather Mary-Janes that tie up with bows. It’s likely that it’s partially procrastination. It can take time to put that sort of outfit together.

There’s something else though. I’ve already said I work from home. Most days it’s just me and the cats. I live in a tiny village largely inhabited by the elderly, it sometimes feels like living in a retirement village. I don’t often wear make-up when I go out. I love flat shoes. But, occasionally I find myself sat at my desk, at home, looking like I should be going to a wedding.

It’s about feeling like I can do a PhD. It’s fighting the gremlins. I am professional and hardworking and if I look like I can do it, then I can. It’s ‘fake it till you make it’.

So what about office days and conference presentations? Am I dressing to influence what people think of me or what I think of myself? Of course first impressions matter. When I started clinical work as a med student we were told to imagine what an average old lady would expect a doctor to wear and dress accordingly. In a professional world where individual human interactions are fundamental, those first emotional perceptions set the tone.

But, should it matter how we dress in academia? In a world of anonymous peer review, we try very hard to look past who the author is. Our work should stand alone, separate to how we dress. It should. But it doesn’t. We are humans, no matter how objective our profession teaches us to be, we are emotional creatures, we are at risk of making judgements about the quality of another academic’s work based on how they look.

If the work is good enough, hopefully we’ll overlook an unfavourable first impression, but maybe we won’t. So, just incase, I dress nicely, so I feel good about myself, so that I walk in feeling like a research professional rather than a student and so that I don’t crush that first impression. All that said, I’m still perplexed by the suits people wear to sit in front of computers in offices where they only communicate in virtual space.

Maybe they need to feel the part like I do.

Maybe they’re faking it too.

The irony is I’m going through all this wardrobe angst for one day where for a few hours I get to wear a floppy velvet hat with a silly tassel and I do all my best thinking in the shower…

The second reflection on fashion is from ‘Vintage Murmur’, who describes herself as “a tentative blogger and reluctant tweeter”. She is doing her PhD on close-kin marriages in Ancient Egypt. Vintage Murmur writes:

In my old life I knew where I stood. All the dressing cues were in place: the power-suit, dressing-up and dressing-down, the comfy no one will see me trousers, and the who cares if I’m not trendy shoes.

And then I was catapulted back into university – same place, new century. I’m obviously not a student but I am a student. My age is the first big cue to set me apart. But how to ease into this life? How to find an acceptable middle ground that goes some way to sharing the student experience?  So what to wear at uni?

Here’s how I figure it out:

  • Ripped jeans – no
  • Faded jeans – only if 75% still identifiably blue
  • Hair – no bright reds, oranges, purples or other sunset/sunrise colours
  • Roots – fine if touched up, avoids grey roots bird’s eye view in lecture theatre
  • Full head of silver grey hair – fine, brings out character in style of old silver fox
  • Lashings of eyeliner – great if you look like Joanna Lumley or Sophia Loren
  • Nose studs – only if worn in ears
  • Black leggings – only if concealed
  • Pixie boots – no
  • 5’’ wedges – no
  • 3’’ wedges – OK, stops hem of jeans from fraying and prevents slipping into ripped jeans camp
  • Trainers – yes, nice and comfy for walking between buildings
  • Trendy trainers – probably not
  • Casual coordinated – OK for teaching, maybe with some chunky jewellery?
  • Corporate clothes – forget it
  • Uncoordinated roomy clothes – great for home, who’s watching anyway?

I don’t want to be mutton dressed as lamb, but I don’t want to be mumsy. It’s OK by me – what you see is what you get. But when it comes to clothes, there’s a choice. Even if I had 100mls of botox and a chin full of fillers, I’d still look vintage.

So what about you? Do you feel like there’s a connection between how you dress and how or what you write? Do you have trouble working out how to ‘be a student again’? We’d love to hear about it in the comments – and please keep sending in links for the Pinterest board!

Related posts

What not to wear: the academic edition

What not to wear: the academic edition (part two)

17 thoughts on “To wear or not to wear – that is the question!

  1. Kat says:

    My morning just followed Kate’s post, I jumped out of bed all inspired (by a deadline) and worked ferociously in my pyjamas. Then, that finished, I got dressed properly, did my hair, put on some make-up to work on the more plodding stuff of the day.

  2. Barry Peddycord III says:

    I still want to write a followup post to this story myself, but I’m waiting on my brother to come over one weekend with a camera so I can doll it up with my Ph.D.-modeling skills. 😀

  3. Bex says:

    Are other people as well deciding between ‘office days’ and ‘maybe seeing people days’? This influences a lot what i’m wearing. And hey yes… i agree… wearing fancy stuff makes me fell good and give me the feeling i’m professional… even if the Phd seems to not go that well…. but than on the other hand there is nothing more annoying than wearing uncomfortable stuff for 9h in front of a computer…i must admit that since i’m doing this Phd i have really let myself go….I wear sloppy cloths…. no makeup…. no handbag anymore… just a bag for books… and on top a huge weight gain…i just hope that this PhD is finishing at one point and i can transform a Butterfly…. but at the moment i feel like a Caterpillar….

  4. sarah wayland (@Thatspaceinbtwn) says:

    I love this…can you please do a poll as to how old you can be to still wear converse trainers? My friends and I (um in our mid 30s) argue about this all the time. When I spoke to my head of school at the beginning of my post grad journey I told her I wanted a career where I could legitimately wear birkenstocks everywhere. She was wearing them when we spoke….its all part of it.

  5. Katherine Firth (@AcadSkillsMelb) says:

    Bex, I totally dress according to what I’m doing in the day. Meeting with the Dean to negotiate a new program? Giving a lecture to 400 students who’ve never seen me before? Coding html in the office? Totally different clothes each time! I think the major change is between producing the research (pyjamas and unwashed hair), which is all about me and my brain, and communicating that knowledge to other people (high heels and lipstick), which is all about looking professional and competent.
    I was just thinking about this for a workshop I’m giving to PhD students on Monday–it’s paralinguistics (the fact that what people respond to in a lecture is 55% facial expression and only 7% words). Thinking of my dress code as paralinguistics makes me feel I don’t have to apologise for thinking that 4″ heels and mascara are important!

  6. Shannon Smith (@ssmithwc1n) says:

    A few years ago, there was a spate of blogs about fashion in the academy. The two most popular and long-lasting have since stopped publishing, but they’re there as archives on the web which might be useful for answering questions people have about what’s appropriate and for giving people ideas about what to wear: and

    A slightly more, er, academic blog about fashion is which, as the masthead states, discusses “the politics, aesthetics, histories, theories, cultures and subcultures that go by the names “fashion” and “beauty.””

  7. Charlie's mom says:

    I agree with Sarah Wayland ; I wear Converse trainers all the time too ! However, I have a conference to attend next month and I think black ballerina flats would be more appropriate !

  8. Karenmca says:

    I’m a librarian who did her PhD part-time as a mature student. Since I never gave up on the day-job, I’m afraid I mainly just dress in such a way that students and lecturers will hopefully regard me as efficient, professional staff. Dressing for conferences isn’t really very different, apart from trying to be that little bit smarter all the time. I’m not a great disciple of fashion. However! one day this week, a complete stranger came into the library and bullied me. I don’t know if “they” were colleagues or invited guests. What I do know is that, typical of many victims, I blamed myself. And since I know, deep down, I had done nothing else wrong, I blame myself for not LOOKING authoritative enough. There wasn’t anything else to blame. Plain beige tee-shirt? (It’s college vacation and summertime – I thought I could relax a bit.) I blame that tee for making me look a frumpy, middle-aged nonentity. My knee-jerk reaction was to buy a couple of ‘office’ type shirts, make an effort to dress smarter, and banish the beige tee to the back of my wardrobe. Oh, and book the overdue hair appointment. Frizzy, curly greying brown hair clearly doesn’t convey the right image. I wonder how often other people choose their wardrobe as a defensive shell?

  9. Eljee Javier says:

    It’s strange that perhaps I’m the only one here that feels that I can’t work in my pyjamas. I wish I could – would save me a lot of time I think. For me, I need to be ready – showered, hair dried, dressed in non-sleep wear and finished breakfast – before I can tackle my day. I also do dress according to what I’m doing that day. I agree with Katherine and Bex – it totally depends! If I’ve got meetings at uni or I’m teaching (UG or PG) then I dress more formally (or dress up rather). If I’m spending the day in the shared office at uni I do dress the same way as I would if I was working from home. I find it gets my in the right mindset to work. Staying in my pyjamas, at least for me, doesn’t get me motivated.

  10. Abdurrahman says:

    We are trying to test with bcihaor. We have an abundance of chicken bedding compost, cow manure compost and potash. I am looking for a right mixture of the different kinds of compost we have with bcihaor to make a really good and natural fertilizer. My thought is 10 percent bcihaor, 10 percent potash, 30 percent cow manure, 30 percent chicken bedding, and the reaminder as just soil. Can you give your opinion?

  11. AP DSC Schedule 2018 says:

    My morning just followed Kate’s post, I jumped out of bed all inspired (by a deadline) and worked ferociously in my pyjamas. Then, that finished, I got dressed properly, did my hair, put on some make-up to work on the more plodding stuff of the day.

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